Hello. Would you like to time travel?
I can take you back to the 1980s and it will cost you absolutely nothing!
Just tune into the series premiere of NBC’s Night Court. This reboot of the NBC comedy, which ran from 1984-1992, epitomizes how hard it is to revisit beloved properties. How do you stay true to the source material without seeming dated, tired, and the sitcom version of an anachronism?
In her first regular series TV role since The Big Bang Theory ended, Melissa Rauch stars as Abby Stone, the daughter of Harry Stone, the character played by the late Harry Anderson in the original series. Rauch also serves as an executive producer on the series along with her husband Winston Rauch. Abby leaves her fiancé and her comfortable life in upstate New York to follow her father’s career path and become a judge on the night shift of a Manhattan arraignment court.
In the pilot, the ever-cheery Abby meets Olivia (India de Beaufort), the court’s assistant district attorney, court clerk Neil (Kapil Talwalkar), and bailiff Gurgs (Lacretta). All she’s missing is a public defender after Paul (David Theune) unceremoniously quits once Abby tells him she wants him to work harder because she believes in him. Enter her dad’s old pal Dan Fielding (John Larroquette, the only returning cast member). Now retired from his days as the court’s district attorney (and with the shaggy beard to prove it), Dan has no interest in revisiting his former stomping grounds. “I left that place years ago. Have not looked back,” he tells Abby. But Abby is persistent, and Larroquette is a series regular so, of course, she convinces Dan to come back to night court. “We need someone who cares as much about people as I do,” she tells him.
Rauch is as perky as ever. Her Abby bakes her colleagues brownies and believes in people. We know this because the show repeatedly has her character saying this in many, many different ways. She wants to be a “Judge who sees them for more than their crime. That’s what my dad did. That’s what I want to do.” In case you still weren’t clear, she tells us. “I just think if you show a little compassion, you can put people on a better path.”
The supporting cast play their roles broadly and without a lot of nuance, making their characters extremely one-dimensional. Larroquette, who always made Dan more than his snarky comments, and Talwalkar, whose Neil is figuring out what he wants to do with his life, are the notable exceptions. There’s a reason Larroquette has already won four Emmys for his portrayal of Dan Fielding; this remains a role he was born to play.
Keeping with the network sitcom theme, upcoming guest stars include Wendie Malick (Just Shoot Me, Hot in Cleveland) as a potential love interest for Dan, and Faith Ford (Murphy Brown) as Abby’s mom. In the six episodes available for review, no mention is made of Christine Sullivan, the public defender played by the late Markie Post, or any other of the original series regulars. Pete Holmes also guest stars as Abby’s fiancé Rand. I’m not sure what exactly the show’s plan is in giving Abby a love interest that isn’t a series regular and who lives far away from her. The sitcom move would be to give her a will-they-won’t-they romance with one of the series regulars, which the show does hint at. Sorry Rand, I don’t see a wedding in your future.
Unfortunately, with the tinny laugh track and stale jokes the show seems stuck in a time warp. There’s a way to do a fresh spin on a traditional network comedy, and this isn’t it. Allow me to give you an example. Gurgs is upset that someone has been moving the letters around on the directory board. “It’s not like anyone is going to believe Gary Buttmouth is a real person,” Neil tells them. Enter the delivery woman who says, “I’m looking for Gary Buttmouth.” Are you laughing? I’m here all week. Try the veal, folks!
Night Court can stick in references to Uber, Riverdale, DJ Khalid and Succession, but that doesn’t hide the fact that the show feels musty. I made a snarky comment at the top of this review about how dated this new version of Night Court seems. But I went back and watched the pilot episode of the original series (which, interestingly is available on Amazon’s FreeVee but not on NBC Universal’s Peacock.) Yes the outfits and hairstyles are passé. Yes some of the jokes wouldn’t fly today (a recurring one involves the characters looking out the window at a naked couple having sex in the next building over). But somehow, even though it’s been 39 years since the pilot aired, the original version has more, for lack of a better word, oomph. Harry isn’t naïve and blindly optimistic. He just believes in himself. I actually laughed more at the jokes, and the tinny laugh track didn’t bother me nearly as much as in the reboot.
Fans of the original will be happy to hear the theme music is back, and that there are fun site gag references to the original series. Although created by Dan Rubin, who was a co-executive producer on Girls5Eva and has written for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt, Happy Endings and Scrubs, this Night Court is guilty of not being funny or entertaining. And unlike Abby, I can’t find an optimistic spin.
Night Court premieres with two back-to-back episodes on January 17th on NBC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.